Proposals move ahead without public's input

Residents say development panel flouts Balto. Co. rules

April 17, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN REPORTER

A wooded area at the edge of a sprawling Pikesville cemetery becomes the site of a proposed townhouse community.

In Towson, developers seeking to expand a retail complex add a wrinkle that its neighbors don't like: plans for a 600-bed college dormitory.

And in Bowleys Quarters, the parking lot behind an aging strip mall is staked out for a new Wal-Mart.

All were proposed in Baltimore County, and all were allowed to move forward - without a requirement for public hearings.

They were instead granted "exemptions" to the full review process by the county's Development Review Committee.

County officials say the panel acts as a sort of traffic officer, guiding projects through the county's labyrinthine development review process. But some residents charge that it has become an all-too-common stop for developers to sidestep community opposition to their plans.

Almost every commercial project in the county seemingly receives exemptions to public hearing requirements, said J. Carroll Holzer, a lawyer who frequently represents community associations in land-use fights. "I think that's a huge abuse," he said.

Berchie Lee Manley, a former County Council member and a community activist in Catonsville, said the DRC has become too powerful, and the review process should be revamped.

"It's a part of the executive branch without any guidelines, without any oversight," she said. "There's a serious problem with the DRC and how it is now functioning."

The central criticism of the DRC was highlighted earlier this year in a case involving plans to construct an office building on land now occupied by a 19th-century house. The DRC ruled that the plans did not require a community meeting because the new house would be a "refinement," or a relatively insignificant change to the previously approved development plan for the property, a retirement campus in Catonsville.

Residents opposed the ruling, and the county's Board of Appeals overturned the decision, agreeing that the DRC was wrong to consider the new building a minor change. Critics say the case is an example of how developers are able to sidestep requirements for community meetings, even for projects as large as a big-box store.

County officials say the panel closely follows the law that requires them to grant the exemptions. Even large buildings can be considered insignificant additions, legally, if they have similar uses as other buildings on the property, they say.

And there are myriad other small-scale projects, such as the addition to a store and some property-boundary adjustments, that are inconsequential, county officials say.

"If you had a community hearing on everything that came before the DRC, the county would come to a standstill," said Donald T. Rascoe, a county development manager who for years chaired the DRC.

Officials say developers often volunteer to hold community meetings, even when they receive exemptions. And they point out that DRC decisions may be appealed through the county Board of Appeals.

But critics say it is important for the county to require community meetings because they allow residents to learn what's being built in their neighborhood and to voice concerns about traffic, schools and the environment.

The DRC process "pretty much takes the community out of the picture," said Alan Zukerberg, an activist from Pikesville. "They're left to basically complaining to their council person, and hope that they're council person can play games."

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said he is studying the issue and looking at whether the process needs to be changed. Zukerberg said he is working with administration officials on setting up a meeting to discuss whether standards for allowing exemptions should be tightened.

The DRC is not the only panel in the region that reviews requests for amendments to existing plans.

In Baltimore City, the Site Plan Review Committee, a consortium of government officials, performs a similar function, a planning official there said. Howard County has the Subdivision Review Committee.

The DRC was created in the early 1990s to make some administrative decisions open to the public, officials say. It consists of an official from each of the five county agencies that review development proposals.

They meet Monday afternoons in a cramped conference room in Towson. Members sit around a long table, and often hold several conversations at once as they pore over maps and question engineers and lawyers standing behind them.

Residents are allowed to watch the meetings from chairs along the walls. Because the meeting is not a "hearing," they are only supposed to watch, though Rascoe said the DRC lets residents speak up if they want.

No minutes are taken. Neither are votes.

Walt Smith, a development manager who has chaired the panel for several months, typically asks members for their thoughts and then decides whether to grant an exemption. He says he will often go on a member's advice.

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